A poem by any other name

23 October 2017

A new book will shed light on a poetry form long neglected in scholarship.

Prose poetry – poetry that is written like prose in paragraphs rather than verse, but containing poetic characteristics – is growing in popularity around the world. However, despite its long history – some say the Bible contains examples of prose poetry – there is no definitive scholarly text on the form.

Now, Deakin poet and Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature with the School of Communication and Creative Arts Dr Cassandra Atherton, has been commissioned, along with fellow poet and academic, the University of Canberra’s Professor of Writing Paul Hetherington, to write a first-of-its-kind book on prose poetry.

Dr Atherton and Professor Hetherington believe the book will make a unique and important contribution to the field, given that both its authors are renowned scholars of prose poetry as well as award-winning practitioners of the form.

Dr Atherton is a highly respected scholar, editor, interviewer, poet-critic and the 2011 Deakin University “Teacher of the Year”. She is the author of 17 critical and creative books and a forthcoming book of prose poetry on Japan’s “Hiroshima Maidens”.

Professor Hetherington heads the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) which he founded in 2013, and is the founder of the IPSI’s Prose Poetry Project. He has written 11 full-length collections of poetry and numerous academic chapters and articles.

Princeton University Press will publish Dr Atherton and Professor Hetherington’s book at the end of next year.

Dr Atherton, who writes poems only in the prose poetry form, said she is excited that the need for such a text has been recognised.

“Prose poems have been steadily gaining popularity since 1990 when American writer Charles Simic was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his book of prose poetry, “The World Doesn’t End”. There have also been an increasing number of journals catering for the form,” she explained.

“However, while this has helped to legitimise prose poetry as a significant form of poetry, scholarship on prose poetry hasn’t grown as quickly. There are many anthologies, but no books that provide detailed, rigorous analysis of the characteristics of the form.

“Our aim is for this book to be the definitive book on prose poetry and to shed light on a popular and growing form that has been otherwise neglected in scholarship.”

Dr Atherton does admit to some trepidation, however, in writing the first, definitive work on prose poetry that will be used by critics and students.

“The book is supposed to be one that anyone who writes, reads or writes criticism about prose poetry can go to. For me, that’s terrifying because we have to make some decisions about things such how prose poetry is defined and how long a prose poem typically is. People might disagree with what we say, but we’re going to be setting the standard with which people agree or disagree. That’s a bit daunting.

“But I’m also excited about the opportunity. I’ve been a prose poet since I was 19 and who knew that all these years later I’d be writing a scholarly work on the subject? I think some of the excitement stems from the fact that there isn’t much written in the area, so I really feel like I’m contributing something.”

The book will address different styles of prose poetry around the world, examine the key characteristics of the form and analyse a selection of key prose poems across time.

“We want to make it international and talk about the different types of prose poems – European, American and Australian, as well as use of the form in contemporary Japan and China,” Dr Atherton said.

“Because we know people in this field and work in it ourselves in Australia, we’ll be able to include important Australian prose poets and raise the flag for Australian prose poetry rather focusing solely on European and American examples.”

Dr Atherton said while European prose poetry tends to be more urban and focus on “little snapshots of life”, the American style couples the surreal with the quotidian, or everyday details. Australian prose poetry, meanwhile, is more laconic and often comic.

“I think prose poetry has to have that aspect of the quotidian on some level, whether the poet subverts it and it becomes something dreamlike, or whether the poet plays with it and it becomes something quite comic and slapstick.

“Whatever the style, prose poetry plays with the idea of the everyday life, the flow and rhythm of living,” she added.

“I love the way a prose poem looks like a paragraph of prose and then you wander into it and you’re in a poem without having realised it.”

By Deakin Research

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Dr Cassandra Atherton is working on the definitive scholarly text about prose poetry.

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Dr Cassandra Atherton is working on the definitive scholarly text about prose poetry.

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